Saturday, November 13, 2010
Mountains Beyond Mountains
The book is right, Haiti is ridiculously gorgeous. I had the most amazing opportunity today to join my new friends, Alexis and her husband Ben, on a hike through a nature wonderland of sorts. Alexis is the head advocacy person at Mennonite Central Committee, based in Port-au-Prince. Born of American parents, having grown up for 18 years in Cameroon and having spent the last 2 ½ years dedicating her life to progressive Haiti development (and learning fluent Creole) she is quite the global citizen. Her husband, Ben, (also American, a good Creole speaker and a real globe trotter) is a talented photographer who works with several of the different International NGO’s operating in Haiti. After a few meetings with Alexis and realizing that she was my kind of person (down-to-earth, respectful of Haitian culture, warm and welcoming,) I was delighted when she and her husband invited me to join them for a day of hiking on a beautiful nature preserve in the mountain village of Kenskoff, about 20 kilometers north of Port-au-Prince.
The preserve is the work of a Haitian American woman named Janie, who bought up the land to protect it and turn it into a natural reserve where community members could help repopulate the land with indigenous plants. The result is a lush Eden of orchids, begonias, impatients, fruit trees, vegetables and green, exotic plants that I have never even seen before. We started up into the hike surrounded by a distant mist that gave the mountain and its flora an ethereal glow. We greeted every Haitian that we passed in Creole and were received with the warmest, most sincere response at every turn. (Creole goes a LONG way…It is inspiring how the Haitian people have held onto their language and so respect its use by foreigners.) I oohed and ahhed over the amazing agriculture projects all around us: terraces of sweet potatoes, cassava, peppers, tomatoes and onions. Green houses with marigolds and lettuce and herbs.
After several wonderful hours of exploring this natural treasure, we finally decided it was time to descend. Just then, the mist began to rise and the mountains and valleys and tiered terraces leapt out before us. Breathtaking. As we carefully navigated down the red earth path, we passed by a procession of community members dressed in red shirts, making their way up to the top of the mountain for a planning meeting. We said “Comment ou ye…or how are you?” to each person and were greeted with a warm smile and laugh. “Mwen byen, par la grace du dieu.” “Very good, by the grace of God.”
Once Alexis, Ben and I made it back down the mountain, we ventured to the town market, where Alexis enthusiastically greeted her friend Christine, a vegetable saleswoman who also dabbles in horticulture. I witnessed such a beautiful and sincere warm embrace between the two women. Christine was obviously delighted to see her old friend Alexis and talked a mile a minute in Creole to her, updating her on the news of the town and market. I felt the divides of race, culture and nationality just slip away at the moment. This is the Haiti that I came to see…a land of mountains beyond mountains and human connection beyond connection.
After Alexis and Ben bought a good sampling of vegetables and I bought a lovely orchid arrangement that Christine had created, we said orevwa and began to head back into the reality of Port-au-Prince. The traffic and noise and pollution and cramped corners slowly emerged. Yet, I still felt high from the day, and seemed to carry a new lightness back into the city with me. My new friends showed me that Haiti still has many wonderful things to teach me. And today proved yet again that one of these lessons is hope.